Fifteen to One

From Academic Kids

Fifteen to One was a popular general knowledge quiz show on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, that ran from 4 January 1988 to 19 December 2003. Throughout it was presented and produced by William G. Stewart. Some 30,000 contestants appeared on the show. It was notable for having very little of the chatting between host and contestant that is often a feature of other quiz shows.

The basis of the show was devised by John M. Lewis, a former sales manager for British Telecom. He submitted the idea to Regent Productions who developed the programme into a 30 minute format. Originally, there were 20 starting contestants but the figure was cut down to 15 in order to fit the available running time. The number varied in other countries: in Poland, the number was 10 as the questions were longer in Polish.


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The 15 contestants stood in a semicircle with a podium in front of each. The design varied slightly over the years, but the essential elements were: a number on the front of the podium, a name badge either on top of the podium or worn by the contestant, and three green neon lights to represent the lives of the contestant. The numbers were allocated by drawing lots from a bag before filming. Once a contestant was eliminated, the spotlight on them went out and they had to sit down.

A separate podium was moved in place for the third round, with the semicircle behind it no longer lit.

Round 1

Over the course of the first two rounds, 12 contestants had to be eliminated.

Each of the 15 numbered contestants began the quiz with three lives. Each contestant was asked a general knowledge question in numerical order and given a period of three seconds to give a correct response. If they failed to answer the question correctly, they lost one of their three lives. After all of the 15 contestants were asked a question, another round of questioning began in the same manner. If any player who had got their first question wrong failed to give a correct answer to their second question, they lost both remaining lives and were eliminated from the competition. Stewart's succinct explanation of round 1 was "Two questions each: one correct answer from you to survive."

Round 2

At this point, each contestant had either 2 or 3 lives remaining. As per Round 1, questions were asked to contestants 1, 2, 3 etc. in turn with one life lost for an incorrect response. As soon as one player answered correctly, the player could begin nominating. This meant they called out the number of the next player to face a question. If the nominated player did not give a correct answer he/she lost a life and the player who made the nomination had to nominate again. If the nominee answered correctly, they became the new nominating player. When a contestant lost their final life they were eliminated from the competition and had to sit down. Towards the end of the show's run, a rule was introduced that forbade contestants from nominating the contestant who had nominated them. When only three contestants remained, the first phase of the quiz was over and the programme paused for a commercial break.

There was no fixed length to Round 2 in terms of time or number of questions, so it could vary considerably. Sometimes, after a difficult first round, there might only be five contestants left standing, leading to a very short round 2. Other times, nobody got dismissed in the first round at all, and round 2 would be quite long. There was never a case when only 3 (or fewer) contestants remained from Round 1, although William G. Stewart once jokingly said that if this happened he would give a talk on the Elgin Marbles to fill the time. Once just 5 contestants remained, but Round 2 still ran on for quite a while, as they all proved to be quite evenly matched.

Round 3

The end game (usually referred to as the final) was played for points. However, before it began in earnest, the three contestants were restored to the full set of three lives and the number of lives that each player had remaining at the end of Round 2 become part of the player's score. Thus those contestants who had 3 lives left started the second phase with a score of 3 points etc. This serves to give players who had not lost a life in the first phase of the game an advantage.

Before the round started, a brief introduction to each of the three players was made by the voice-over, giving their occupation and hobbies or interests.

In the end game, a maximum of 40 questions were asked. A wrong answer cost one life (three lost lives leading to elimination - regardless of score), while correct answers scored 10 points. The first question was open to all players to answer on the buzzer. Once one of the players answered 3 questions correctly they were given the opportunity to answer the next question themselves or nominate one of the other two players to answer.

From this point on, after each successfully answered question the host asked - "Question or nominate?" If a nominated player failed to answer a question correctly, the player who made the nomination again had a choice of "Question or nominate?". If a player chose to answer a question themselves and failed to answer it correctly, the next question was asked on the buzzer. Once all 40 questions were asked, or the last remaining player lost all of his/her lives, the game was over. The player who survived longest was declared the winner. In the instance where two or three players survived until the end of 40 questions, the player with the higher or highest score (regardless of lives left) was the winner. Any lives that remained were added to the winning player's score with a value of 10 points each.

Again, round 3 could vary considerably in length. Thus, the programme was structured in such a way that it could be shortened or lengthened easily. For example, if the recording was running short, Stewart could show the finals board to the viewers at the end, or show the trophies for that series. If it was running long, the contestant introductions before round 3 could be cut short.

Finals Board

The Finals Board was the table of the fifteen highest scoring winners so far in that series. It started empty and as winners got sufficiently high scores they would be displayed on it: the first fifteen winners of a series were therefore guaranteed a slot on the board (however temporary)! If someone tied with the person in 15th place, both would be removed from the board and displayed to one side, with position 15 left empty.

At the end of the series those people whose names remained on the finals board competed in the grand final. An unscreened playoff took place immediately before the Grand Final if there were still people on the sidelines tied for 15th place.

Grand Final

This was played as per a regular episode with two changes. Due to the high standard of the competitors, and to allow time for presentation of the trophies, the running time was 45 minutes. Also, in Round 3, all the questions were played on the buzzer. Presumably this was to prevent any individual player from hogging the limited number of questions available.


There was no actual prize for winning an individual episode. This meant that a lot of players would win one of the daily shows but would not post a winning score to trouble the high score board for a place in the grand final. In later series, a policy was implemented that such players would be invited back for an automatic place on the next series. Some players became so regular that in the last few series Grand Final winners would not get such an invitation.

The series prize tended to be a classical artefact (for example a Greek vase), and was presented to the winning contestant by the regular voice-over artist, Laura Calland (who married Stewart in 1997). Calland's voice-overs were occasionally provided by other presenters, usually Philip Lowrie, but only Calland was seen on screen, when she presented the prize.

The grand final of the first series of 2003 saw the first and only series tie. It was one of only four real ties in the show's history, as normally when contestants finished on equal points, the winner was decided by the usual "remaining lives = 10 extra points each" formula. Only when two contestants were level on both points and lives remaining, would a tie be declared. No provision had been made for a tie breaker so the presenter offered to buy a prize of equal value for the two winners!


A maximum end game score of 433 could be achieved if a player started the second phase with all three lives intact and correctly answered all 40 questions. The player scored 3 points for retaining 3 lives from Rounds 1 and 2, 400 points for answering 40 questions correctly and 30 points for retaining 3 lives from the end game. The maximum score was achieved only once by Bill McKaig, a minister from Glasgow.

The feat of answering all 40 third round questions correctly was also achieved by Daphne Fowler and Michael Penrice who both finished with a score of 432. It has been argued that Daphne Fowler's score was the best performance as a whole, as she had a much longer Round 2 to get through than Bill McKaig.

Behind the Scenes

The shows were filmed at Capital Studios in Wandsworth, South London. Only in the first few series was there a live audience. After that, the audience sounds were pre-recorded, and the only real audience was any contestants who had already been knocked out.

Winners of Fifteen to One

Series Grand Final Winner Top of the Finals Board Score Shown
1 Jon Goodwin Peter Knott 270 1988
2 Mal Collier Fred Gavin 290
3 Kevin Ashman Mal Collier 261 1989
4 Andrew Francis Thomas Dyer 202
5 Anthony Martin Anthony Martin 251 1990
6 Mike Kirby Mike Kirby 281
7 Thomas Dyer Mike Kirby 263 1991
8 Anthony Martin Katharine Heaney 242
9 Julian Allen Barbara Thompson 252 1992
10 Barbara Thompson Sheri Evans 231
11 Anthony Martin Tim Goadby 242 1993
12 Glen Binnie Andrew McGlennon 302
13 Stanley Miller Peter Fillingham 251 1994
14 Leslie Booth Lesley Webster 262
15 Leslie Booth Christopher Cooke 292 1995
16 Ian Potts Susan 'O Donoghue 231
17 Arnold O Hara John Clarke 291 1996
18 Martin Riley Martin Riley 333
19 Trevor Montague* Christopher Bostock 292 1997
20 Bill Francis Rosemary Broome 311
21 Nick Terry Christopher Bostock 272
22 Nick Terry Bill McKaig 272 1998
23 Bill McKaig Roy Smith 293
24 Paul Hillman Michael Irwin 311
25 Nick Terry Bill McKaig 433 1999
26 Nick Terry Michael Penrice 321
27 Les Arnott John Jenkins 303 2000
28 Dag Griffiths Daphne Fowler 432
29 Matti Watton Daphne Fowler 383
30 Daphne Fowler Daphne Fowler 333 2001
31 Daphne Fowler Martin Saunders 292
32 Matti Watton Michael Penrice 423 2002
33 David Good Jim MacIntosh 271
34 Jack Welsby
David Stedman
Azeez Feshitan  ? 2003
35 John Harrison John Harrison  ?
  • Montague lost his prize in a court case. William G. Stewart was tipped off by an eagle-eyed viewer that Montague had previously appeared on the programme in disguise and under a different name to avoid the programme's strict rules that losing players could not re-enter unless invited.

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